Sunday, August 26, 2012

Time and Tide Pt. 4

“Mathematics is the language of God.”--Galileo

Regarding the Infinite, Pt. 1

For most people on the planet, some Supreme Being is the given arbiter of all subjects with no beginning or ending, and most frequently referred to in those terms, or term limits. (Which is the case for Supreme Court Justices as well, and who really should be under the latter aegis.) However, for mathematicians, physicists and others for whom infinity is a factor (meaning: some value to add into a subject in order to come to a conclusion—more or less, when approached via higher disciplines), while the subject is often discussed in terms which may approximate religious zeal, agape wonderment or prayer (if reworking equations over and over might be said to be comparable to davening, dervish dancing or holy rolling), the brutal fact of the matter is: numbers count, and nothing else does.


As much as we may want to get all mystical about it, or even metaphysical (like calling something “eternal”, which implies more than it means), the idea of a “transcendental figure” is best served by the Greek letter of pi, rather than anything conjured up by the Maharishi at Rishikesh. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to conjure with there; some people go all nuts over rolling it out for a couple million digits, looking for some pattern. It is only because of our particular schooling—that we have an innate teleological frame of mind (that being the belief that everything has a reason) from poor education into the nature of systems—that the vast majority would rather think about the Old Guy on the Clouds instead of the awe and majesty of 1) a discovery of a physical, universal truth of the universe, and 2) that the human mind could actually do this without divine intervention.

So, whist in the midst of this sun-dazed contemplation, I get back to the Kindle and turn the page on another story from the Philip K. Dick collection and what do I find? “The Infinites.”

For real. This was NOT arranged by me, OR the powers-that-be, to fit into the “flow” as much as you teleologists might think. The reason I cited Dick in part one was to explain how amazing his thought processes were well before the late 1960’s body of work which made his rep, and which has become something of a staple for Hollywood in recent years. More, after watching “The Twilight Zone” marathon over the last Independence Day celebrations, one cannot read these tales and help but think how well Philip would’ve fit in with Rod. Morality plays, O. Henry-like endings, scientific or psychological twists on space operas, smattering of sardonic humor pieces—even today, these are still reminders of how a sense of wonder could be encapsulated in stories under 5,000 words. And in Serling’s anthology format they couldn’t’ve failed, up there next to Robert Bloch, Earl Hamner, Jr. and the rest of his stable of pens.

But that this title would surface so neatly…begins to, in essence, creep one out. Teleologically speaking. I am equally suspicious of auspicious tarot cards, fortune cookies and I-Ching coin tosses. However, by this point in the day, the sun has begun to turn everything to burnt copper in long shadows; the brainbake from noon now producing a mind rind with the consistency of canola-crisped calamari, thoughts drift back to the topless towers of Illium and another beach, the one at Troy where Paris said to Pelias, “Hey, dad, why argue? We’ll burn it as an offering to the gods. Tomorrow.”

(Tempus Fugit, son.)

. "We've evolved," Eller said. "The radiation from the asteroid speeded up cell growth, like cancer. But not without design. There's purpose and direction to these changes, Blake. We're changing rapidly, moving through centuries in a few seconds."
. Blake stared at him.
. "It's true," Eller said. "I'm sure of it. The enlarged brain, diminished powers of sight, loss of hair, teeth. Increased dexterity and tactile sense. Our bodies have lost, for the most part. But our minds have benefited. We're developing greater cognitive powers, greater conceptual capacity. Our minds are moving ahead into the future. Our minds are evolving."
. "Evolving!" Blake sat down slowly. "Can this be true?"
. "I'm certain of it. We'll take more X-rays, of course. I'm anxious to see changes in the internal organs, kidneys, stomach. I imagine we've lost portions of our --"
. "Evolved! But that means that evolution is not the result of accidental external stresses. Competition and struggle. Natural selection, aimless, without direction. It implies that every organism carries the thread of its evolution within it. Then evolution is ideological, with a goal, not determined by chance."
. Eller nodded. "Our evolution seems to be more of an internal growth and change along distinct lines. Certainly not at random. It would be interesting to know what the directing force is."
. "This throws a new light on things," Blake murmured. "Then we're not monsters, after all. We're not monsters. We're -- we're men of the future."
. Eller glanced at him. There was a strange quality in Blake's voice. "I suppose you might say that," he admitted. "Of course, we'll still be considered freaks on Terra."
. "But they'll be wrong," Blake said. "Yes, they'll look at us and say we're freaks. But we're not freaks. In another few million years the rest of mankind will catch up to us. We're moving ahead of our own time, Eller."

Ok. This is late 50’s/early ‘60s science-fiction, even if it is PKD. Admittedly, as compelling as the ideas are, the story ain’t that far from pulp fiction. After the lab rats—literally—reverse the process, Eller gets the gal lab technician, so not that far off from the girl/girl stuff anyways.

But the point here is the main thesis. The view of Blake, that evolution—which, according to Darwin was a combination of environmental factors and benefits to the organism—shows itself to have a purpose, is teleological. Can’t remember how often that plot device was used on TV: in the “Zone”, “Outer Limits”, “Star Trek” and countless other futuristic utopian fictions.

And yet, it was only today, getting zoned by the sun's spectrum of visible frequencies (plus alpha-, beta-, gamma-, delta-, UV- and X-rays) and Carl Wilson, spaced by the horizon line where the water meets the sky, that this one singular revelation finally broke through. Evolution doesn’t have a purpose, and endpoint or such…but, perhaps, genes may have a potential for such, under such extreme mutations.

This could, then, be seen as an argument for Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene”, but it also applies to extreme math—a catchall term I use for anything involving numbers…and letters that stand-in for numbers. Because I have an aversion to formulae, I freely admit that what follows is simply a “naturalist’s” point of view, which is to say, ultimately a heuristic journey. If you want to find out about something, Wikipedia is a great place to start. Then just follow the other links and you can deduce a lot about your subject. (I am well aware of the ongoing mis-, dis- and mal-information which propogates all the jokes about what you get on search engines. Which is probably true—if you are looking for stories on Lee Harvey Oswald or Area 51. However, higher math? I cannot conceive of a prankster who would go to the trouble of creating articles on geometry in order to hoax the scientific world. First, such fallacies would be exposed by the first person of knowledge to click the button. Second, elaborate plots of this sort are reserved for things people might be interested in; urban legends, conspiracy theories, Hawaiian birth certificates. And, as you are about to observe, what follows here is going to put anyone but me—and the odd cruiser from CalTech if one should appear—dead to sleep in moments.)

The first thing you notice is the reduced formulae—good old semi-simple English. What this makes you realize is that these things need more explanation than even Field Medal specialists can immediately comprehend, via the traditional routes. And this get even better when you consider the Infinite. Perhaps the most telling quote comes from Georg Cantor. In 1907, he wrote the “Theory of Transfinite Numbers”, the well-nigh primer on the infinite series, and how to calculate something by adding in nothing (as far as I can figure, yes: that is an accurate statement). When he came to his first conclusions on the subject, he wrote: “To see is not to believe.” That should give you a good idea of what even the experts think about this. And one good reason is that: You can't get there from here.

(Remember, as Saint McLuhan said: The Medium is the Message.)

Which is how one might develop a keen sense of vertigo contemplating the macro and the micro in the universe. If I know one thing, it is that if Mandelbrot was right, and everything points to that, then the closer you look, the further you go into minute examination of any material substance, the more likely you are to find your own eye staring right back at you.

Exactly what is it that makes this sound absurd? Doubtless it is the idea that "you" are at the other end of, say, the Hubble telescope raised to the sky, to whatever the exponential of "nth" is. Sure, that's what sounds dumb: like a universe so massive might be something else...on another scale. (Why does that word keep coming up?) Let's try a metaphor from one of the world's leading physicists, Lee Smolin. A favorite quote about him is from the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of the quark itself, Murray Gell-Mann: "Is he the guy with all the crazy ideas? He might not be wrong." And of these, the craziest and most fascinating--also called (by Richard Dawkins) "gloriously Darwinian"--is his solution to The Goldilocks Problem. (You can figure out that one, right? No? Check out Martin Rees book "Just Six Little Numbers" and you'll see more that you can imagine.)

It goes like this: Universes give birth to baby universes in black holes. (So? Why not? All that matter and energy that goes in and nothing, not even information, comes out. It has to go somewhere, right?) And the "daughter" universes inherit the fundamental laws and constants of the parental physics. (Makes sense.) However, in the birth process, mutations do occur, giving rise to heterogenous populations of universes. Lineages of varying universes are subject to the kind of natural selection in favor of whatever traits assist survival. (Some last longer than others, giving them time to reproduce. And some are more likely to generate black holes than others.) And the process goes on.

So, this is crazy? Stop and add in what we have learned from Chaos Theory: that in all regimes of turbulence, the point at which surface tension breaks down into swirls of random energy, patterns begin to form within them and that demonstrates the principle of self-organizing units. There is no reason to think that this principle is any different on the marcocosmic scale (again) than any other.

Then, not so absurd, speculatively, eh?

Ok, what about absolutely scientifically, yeah? Something with numbers or measurements.

Perhaps, then, is it the idea that there is something which could be at two places at the same time? The dilemma here is Classical Physics vs. Quantum Physics. We know that both obey their laws in their realms enough so that we can predict, with some certainty, how matter and energy will behave, and what is possible and what isn't. In classical physics--no, you can't be in two places at the same time (and you can say that because you can use a word like "time" in Classical). In Quantum physics, however, if you can't tell where you are twice at the same elapse-of-photon-based-measurement-message-return (because you can't use a word like "time" in Quantum), whatever constitutes "you" (at the level where a Planck length would be the size of a tree...if an atom were the size of the known universe) just could (meaning: under the laws of probability) be.

Ok. Stupid pet tricks abound when one tries to combine these two. But, given the parameters of the question, you have to envision a tipping point between these realms and, though it is so far into the minimum existence you'd need a souped-up cyclotron to get any data, accept the fact that all things being equal--

And there's the real crux of the problem: all things ARE equal. Even if you DO use a Large Hadron Collider, there's no reason to think that either end of a scale differs substantively, especially when they are numbers. But it appears to be the same when speaking of the languages of geometry as well. One of the major points of “The Elegant Universe” is how string theory seems to solve a lot of the contradictions between the language of the Standard Model (Quantum) and General Relativity (everything else), and that, when using the term “language” is freely accepted as methods of defining both, the major “misunderstanding” between them is pretty much called “syntax”—that which we in the grammatical world say is "the study of the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages". (Definition admittedly ripped off from Wiki.) The reason for the previous plural is that one of the things that has come to light in my investigation is that there really are different systems of syntax; whole entities unto themselves used to describe such discrete elements as nested planes, curved space, rotations and such things as "rolling" one system along another via special linkages. If you are like me, you probably stopped with Euclid and squares, triangles and circles...because when you got to the idea of number pi (aforementioned) you went wugga-wugga-woo.

Which is pretty much how Wilson's central solo sounds. It is said that Carl eschewed the central tenet of rock and didn't plug into an amp in later recordings; he just jacked into the mix and wailed into headphones. And here on the beach, that's perfect: a private experience of turbulence erupting into chaos the way it replicates the grind from the pluck as it soars up the shore in the tidal bore, extending the light in silver slivers of white, ending in the eager eagre that resolves into furze frizzle foam which crashes into sand and disappears forever. Small wonder people pay so much to retire to oceanfront properties; you'd have to be pretty dim to ever get tired of this.

And that leads me to someone who, probably, shares the same vision as I, and maybe Carl, but on a much more significant level. There's this physicist who surfs named Garrett Lisi. Or—a surfer who does physics named Garrett Lisi. It’s a tossup which he prefers, having spent as much time on the board as studying for Boards, it would appear (from his press at least). As much as I can figure, he's fluent in a number of geometric languages and, like some utility translator at the United Nations, he has heard the babble and seen, amid the mess of the signal-to-noise ratio, a message. It went something like this. Ten years or so ago he was working on spinor fields (mathematical representations of particles like electrons) which were traditionally expressed algebraically. Only he wondered how they would look in geometric terms.

Hold that thought.

In some distant pre-X system in the past, Apple included an app called a graphic calculator. Sure, it could do sums at tax time just fine, but it also had the additional feature that if you put in a formula with x, y, and z as coordinates, it would show you not only how the graph looked, but how it looked in 3-D! You could see saddles and puckers and ellipses and hyperbolas and, oh, a lot of neato shapes. Hours of fun for the whole family. It has been said often, but most pointedly by the string theory adherent and science-TV popularizer Michio Kaku, that one of the barriers to us understanding higher dimensions is that we lack the physical equipment—i.e., five senses and ONLY binocular vision—to see it. Even to process the visualization. Until computer graphics came along. This meant that what we could think of—more or less—we could make pictures of.

So, Lisi’s spinor fields actually fit in very nicely with a mathematical language for Clifford Bundles, usually used to describe rotations. Their most common use? Computer graphics.

And now you may see.

The rest of the terms are just as complex but they do indicate something very key to the whole so hold on. Curiosity getting the better of him, Lisi wonders what Clifford Bundles would “look like” (more as a speculation than an actual image, though) used to describe strong/weak/electromagnetic forces. To do this, he uses a 30-year-old description of gravity called the MacDowell-Mansouri Approach. (Too detailed to go into here. The MacDowell–Mansouri action is a mathematical object (an action) that is used to derive Einstein's field equations of general relativity. [Wiki theft] The upshot is that it incorporates into the flow from Euclidean Geometry to Riemannian geometry and Klein Geometry by adding into the chain Cartan Geometry—the last being, again, a way of taking maths and putting them into versatile shapes, but adding in point-to-point connections not previously accounted for.) Where this led was to the properties of exceptional Lie groups, and, in particular, one called E8, famous for usage in descriptions of higher-level symmetries. Lisi then zeroed in on the E8 group—described as a spiderweb cloud with thousands of strands exploding from hubs of concentric circles. Yes. Takes a minute.

Long enough.

It is easy to bandy about a lot of obscure physics-meets-math doubletalk and expect people to accept what you say on trust. I would greatly enjoy going into the reams of readings to back up my proofs, but, as this isn’t for MENSA, or a grad degree, I will state only that this world is not for the faint of heart or the easily dissuaded. However, the yield from such exploration is rather astonishing.

Consider JUST the case of Lisi, who—right or wrong—has this strangely elegant formulation which feels like sense. He had to go through four, or maybe five, languages, each with their own syntax, before getting at something that even looked like a resolve. But, even for the individual following the progression of the various geometries aforesaid, to arrive at the end and realize just HOW you got there? That’s intoxicating. And why, you may say, does this Lie Group E8 look more like “sense” than anything else? Go to the Wiki page for it and look at it. Even as it comes in (if you’re lucky, it loads slowly) you can see the lines developing much as they probably did in Photoshop or Illustrator layers. And when it finally assembles into the finished picture, if it doesn’t ring that bell of “supersymmetry”…well, I can’t help you further.

Of course, that doesn’t mean anything without some further proofs does it? It could all be a pure fiction of imagination, I’ll grant.

Did Newton get hit on the head by an apple? No. Did he see one fall and make the connection? Both are apocryphal but the latter is reputed as having some validity.

Does Lisi catching glassies mean anything? The more you watch waves, the more they say to you. I can only wonder that riding them might give even greater insight. He has come to the place where gravity is seen as a manifestation of force fields, and he did it before we got the announcement from CERN that--

--takes us back to the Higgs Boson.

(to be continued)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Time and Tide Pt. 3

The Soft Sell and the Soft Cell

1. (used to introduce the first of two or more alternatives, and sometimes repeated before the second or later alternative, usually with the correlative or): It matters little whether we go or stay. Whether we go or whether we stay, the result is the same.
2. (used to introduce a single alternative, the other being implied or understood, or some clause or element not involving alternatives): See whether or not she has come. I doubt whether we can do any better.

As to whether “whether” Carl Wilson was thinking of during “Feel Flows”, I am inclined to suspect that if the choice was either, it would be neither.

But when you get to the third possibility…

3. Archaic (used to introduce a question presenting alternatives, usually with the correlative or )

This is where the heart of the matter is: “a question presenting alternatives”. Mind you, it even appears to be closer to the old English of “whither”, indicating a direction unknown but nonetheless posited as a destination. That seems even weirder now than it did in the ‘60s, when folks were also going hither and yon. Which also presents as valid a description of subatomic reality as any; be it a quark in a shrinking box or Schoedinger’s Cat—there will always be that question of probability, of “whether”, but more.

This is not a question of “choice”, per se, inasmuch as the commercial that trumpets the New & Improved product or Brand X; as Monte Hall would offer Door Number One, Door Number Two or what we have behind that curtain; as Frank R. Stockton in 1882 would ask you “The Lady or The Tiger”. Those are all definition #1; the world we are used to. Anything that gives an answer. And then there is definition #2: being “on message” in the Romney campaign, for instance, means to offer yourself as an alternative to what is…without ever defining what you are. That’s the same as ye olde Madison Avenue sales copy: the two best persuasion techniques being to appeal to Fear or Love. And neither with any content. When it gets to #3, however, you are left with the uneasy feeling that you should identify your own products, your own issues, and mostly do it by finding out where you are and what you are by listening to something other than the Pitchman.

As we left off with the question of a “message”, it behooves us here to stop and consider something about what a “message” might be. The previous mention was in quotes to acknowledge we are talking about something not involving bound morpheme schemes relating to a fixed grammar-&-syntax: i.e., word and sentences. Nor are we talking about some kind of symbolism, such as a fish wrapped in a bloody bullet-proof vest. “It’s a Sicilian message,” says Clemenza. “It means Luca Brazi sleeps wi’ da fishes.” (If you have to ask where that one comes from…I should encourage further socialization.) So? Is it strictly content which can be translated into any known language that qualifies as a “message”?

And now, a message from our sponsors…

No, we are also talking about numbers. And the best ones come out of the LHC—Lesser Hadron Collider. But as none of us is a particle physicist, we will deal with it on layman’s terms, and an analogy straight from the conference on 4-7-12, offered by Joe Incandela, CMS Spokesperson. “The number of particle collisions, if—say—each hadron (proton stuff, essentially) was the size of a grain of sand, the number of collisions would be enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But the number that yielded this discovery would be about the amount that would cling to a fingertip.” This is how we got to the point where we found what we thought we’d find but aren’t sure of what that is. Which is how Fabianola Gianotti, the ATLAS Spokesperson, explained that what they received was a “signal at a strength of five sigmas”. There are some really fascinating definitions for her usage of this term but, most probably, the right one is (given the circumstances of the experiment) “the standard deviation of a population or probability distribution in statistics”.

So why should this matter? Because numbers count.

Still, the other part of the discovery is the “signal”. The way this has been described is, more or less, a fabulous measurement of 14Tv (Tetravolts)—an energy spike that goes beyond all understanding if it is not. And by couching this in the terms of “sigmas” we understand that the probability factor of a correct assessment is also equally high. However, if the signal is no more than a number, the message stops right there.

Looking at the CERN results, are CERtaiNly the formative revelation here, but before this arrived, there was Eric Kandel's book. And this is another aspect of Time. Starting out as a memoir is the perfect frame for its overarching subject--memory--its discovery through science as well as experience, and a review/introduction to the history of cognitive research. As noted previously, philosophical speculation that begins in observation of the natural world frequently offers rewards far beyond its humble origins.

Which is how he introduces Cajal, the painter-turned-neurological investigator who isolated the neuron as the elementary particle (so to speak) of the brain, of thought transmission, of neurotransmitter reception, mono-directional messaging—a/k/a the “signaler”—the whole ball of wax, right there.

Which it isn't...a ball of wax, that is. It is, in essence, the spindliest little string leading into a structure not dissimilar to an anemic sockburr, which then extends another trickle-tickle thread (axon) out into a system of air-roots somewhere between a ficus tree and a spider plant (dendrites and synapses). However strained the comparisons may be, this visualization via vegetation is important. The revealed structures of elementary particles repeat such descriptive characteristics with such frequency, one might ponder if one is fantasizing, over-dramatising, or, perhaps, it is just that those entrusted with thinking in grand patterns are actually blind to the world and its wonders. But not to all. Jefferson wrote "We hold these truths to be self-evident" about the Rights of (hu)Man(s), but it stands to is REASON—ratiocination, not rationalization—to which we look with a fair amount of trust. So, factor in the fact the “action potential in membrane hypothesis” in neurons that was discovered by Bernstein around 1902, and who reasoned that something must carry information (positive/negative ions—essentially, a binary language) across a cell synapse,a nd found what we call today "neurotransmitters". What made up this extracellular fluid was, mostly proteins, potassium, and sodium and chloride…a/k/a: salt. True, the chemical messages are mostly by potassium ion channels…

But still: saltwater?

That’s pretty hard to ignore, on a beach. The fact that most of what we are and do is due to us being something like 90% the stuff that tides are made of, is almost deep enough to make you believe in astrology. (Saltwater as a message? Well, tears sure are…) Other things are even harder to ignore, given the fact that this particular stretch of sand is also the one where the dress code is optional (either or neither) and provides a dram of licentious license; an appreciation for the form adds even more to where a flock of seagulls seems equal in stature to Mr. Buff or Ms. Hardbody, when seen through binoculars that foreshorten distance. Which is, of course, yet another example of Scale. And when you see a pair of topless nubiles, strolling hand-in-hand on the sand, there is another case of “whether” entirely.

Which leads to the not-so-really tawdry Lesbian novels of the 50’s, where one would think there very little to offer outside of prurient interest. Today, this as much “in one era and out the other”, but in its time… However, it is just for this reason that something remarkable happens. Delving into the depths of depravity that are the sororities in “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, Vol. 1: Odd Girl Out” by Ann Bannon and “Whisper Their Love” by Valerie Taylor, and, of course, “Women’s Barracks” by Tereska Torres, one would expect non-stop depictions of slavering lusts in these superheated hothouses of youthful hormones run rampant. Which is patently ridiculous. This isn’t modern porn, where the equivalent of the pool/pizza boy, or vacuum-cleaner/insurance salesperson drops in and it’s Katie-bar-the-door. In reality, these fictions are tantamount to Harlequin romances, albeit with the additional twist of Twist & and swatch of Switch. Mostly, they are young girl coming-of-age stories wherein the protagonist undergoes some initial trauma (usually familial, but can be as broad as WWII), has a date (or few) with a male which turns out badly, suffers gender confusion and fixates on a (usually) older female, and eventually falls into a heated embraced detailed only in euphemism. They are, to be blunt, charmingly naive and even a tad innocent. (“Whisper Their Love” is the one with any depravity, so far, where the heroine joins her lover at a seedy bar-cum-nightclub in the “wrong-part-of-town” and meets a couple cross-dressers and Broadway queens and drag kings. And a few “reefers” get passed about.)

And that's why even hot-girl-on-girl-action stories can be part of this metaphysical hookup. Despite the promise of the lurid cover copy, these are not sapphic lap-lover orgies. While not having absorbed the entire corpus, one can make certain generalizations which—so far—represent a pattern that is easy to detect. The overt factor here is that there is nothing as sophisticated as a gender change that is permanent. These are all affairs d'coeur: girls falling in love with girls, a condition also noted in Kandel's memoir part, where he recalled, of his childhood in post-Empire/pre-Anschluss Vienna, that maids for the upper-middle-class were not only hired for their dusting abilities but also for introducing pubescent boys to the delights of female sexuality to keep them from experimenting with their friends. More of a question of “going with the flow” so to speak. Does that make “feeling your oats” any less than “feel flows”? To ride the tide is also to surrender to the waves, is it not? This posits the old argument that, while one may be "born" that way (the "gay" gene, as some call it)--which is perfectly acceptable and in accord with what we know about these developmental markers to date--it is also the case that proximity and opportunity play a role for those not given that bent by biology.

Because that’s where Psychology’s cause-&-effect becomes an “if/then” statement.

Kandel’s triple play isn’t O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg; it’s Thorndike (instrumental conditioning) to Pavlov (operant conditioning or classical conditioning) to Skinner (Behaviorism), and before them all shining a light on the path with the opening pitch—Freud’s “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life”. And it all comes from Empirical Reasoning: first, observation or repetitions in experiments and analysis, then conclusions may be drawn from standard interpretation of results, and finally, speculation. This is the cornerstone of any edifice of thought that wants to succeed—pro or con—on the merits of its arguments, rather than its biases. The triple play team may offer concrete results, true, but it all started with the mud adobe of Freud’s subconscious.

This is the Soft Science, and for a reason: quantifiable people only exist in statistics; there are no sigmas for individual personalities only groups…which is why Darwin could be 100% right…and Edmund O. Wilson as well, with an even “softer” science; the “if/then” statement becoming “whether this or that”.

Wilson’s radical new idea was Sociobiology, which, in 1975, was so controversial that got him attacked as both a racist and fascist; now it’s as mainstream as Flouridation. His new controversy is that of Eusociality: the principle of self-sacrifice in given populations which is clearly against the Evolutionary doctrine of all change being made only that serves to enhance or advance the cause of the individual organism. This is where statistics and heroism somehow co-exist as, for Wilson, the proper study of Man is also ants. (“They are the only other species who make war on their own kind…and ants have an instinct for self-sacrifice, organization and savagery, which makes man seem feeble by comparison!”—Edmund Gwen in THEM!, 1950. Trust me, this one is worth it.) How does this square up with the also-controversial idea of Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene”? Not badly, at least as far as Kin Selection goes—where, it is posited, you will find little differentiation between the individual’s interests and that of its kin: hence, the gene that guides an animal to help its kin spreads through the population, regardless of the cost to the animal itself. And in the case of ants, it is the nest or colony which is paramount, the individual worker or soldier being as much an extension of the biomass of all as and arm or a leg. Once you admit (as Wilson did) that, under these circumstances the difference between standard Natural Selection and Kin Selection are not so great, you begin to form a clearer picture about the whole “proximity” thang as it replicates across scales the same concept of “nearness” and special relationships (close to Special Relativity, but not quite) in “families”, where cause-&-effect’s “if/then” statement becomes “whether this and that”.

Whether you understand this closeness of subjects via the advertised line or feel the flow in your neurons, the soft sell or the soft cell, This is all feel flows, the way things come together.

Perhaps then, the real message—chemical or photon-return—truly is “whether”…


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dispatch from the Front Lines

"The Magical Mystery Tour
Is dying to take you away
Take you away,
Take you today"

[the following unsolicited report was received at HQ 16:06 8-7-12]

So, Saturday we took off for Philadelphia to do voter registration. I just got tired of watching things go bad on MS-NBC; you can only sit at home and scream at the TV for so long.

The transpo was arranged by the party here; the idea was to send a couple of buses down to lend some support to the effort in PA, especially with respect to the suppression efforts of their legislature…plus have an interstate birthday celebray for the Prez. I got recruited through NYC For Change, nice guy named Dale who I met in the lobby of the DemoHQ building on 8th and 36th, and brought along the Elf, figuring that the buzz would do her some good. Bad day to go crosstown by cab; the Park Avenue shutdown made everything from Central Park to 14th turn to sludge. By the time we ran there from the N, in my khakis and polo, I was pouring so much sweat it was dripping off me in splats. Fortunately, I had brought a change of shorts and campaign t-shirt and got to do the Clark Kent in the men’s room. Smartest thing I did all day.

On the ride down, just off the turnpike, I got my first glimpse of what it’s like in a big city outside of Manhattan. See, we don’t have any extra room in this city for gypsy encampments anymore (last one’s being the L.E.S. back in the ‘80s), but I know one when I see one. And I did—tents and lean-tos and canopies strung under some trees. I mean, I don’t have anything against them, but wow—you forget what “poverty” looks like on the other side of the river. Then, you get to see the rest of the Schuykill river, and it really feels like about 100 years ago: boating clubs with private manors, mansions, even a waterway management system looks as if it came from the 1876 Centennial, to resemble Ostia Antica in Rome.

When we finally got into the city, it was only the Northwest quadrant, I think, because that’s where our bus was sent to the duty. We were to stay on to stop 2, about 23 of us going deep into the heart of East Germantown. Don’t let the name fool you; ain’t been no sauerbraten in a while, dig? This is a place for Popeye’s, hair & nail salons, used furniture shops, liquor stores, storefront churches and mosques. When we got into the office at 7171 Ogontz—a former Subway sandwich franchise between a Nuevo-soul food store and a Pentecostal called The Church of Broken Pieces—we were told our area was one no canvassers had been at all. In all: we were Gus, an older guy with something of a Greek accent; Ernestine and Lisa, both church-lady types but Lisa more prone to quoting scripture to win over reluctant prospects; and Steve, our local group leader who drove his van over—young guy with impeccable diction, possibly of Hindu extraction. As he handed out our walker-packets, Steve explained that we were going into an area where a lot of houses were either abandoned or boarded-up, but as we were working in pairs, that shouldn’t be a cause for concern. And we were to exchange cell numbers. And stay hydrated.

Our route was up N. Sydenham and down N. 15th Street, actually the area between a park called Wakefield and the Cristo Rey High School and Widner Memorial School. All the houses were similar: two-story, wood-frame jobs built on slope rises so every lawn was miniscule and nearly vertical.

On the way over we passed a lot of park cook-outs and BBQ’s, which had Gus fairly chomping at the bit, saying we should forget the routes and just grab whatever we could there. It turned out he was probably right; no one answered any of our doorknocks until the tenth or so, and only about one-in-eight after that. But whenever we found someone at home, they were invariably courteous and over half also filled out “commitment cards”—meaning, they had promised to vote for our guy, and would receive these self-addressed reminders in the mail as November 6th neared. It got to the point where we felt comfortable enough to approach gangs of teenagers I would hesitate to pass in NYC and soon got cards from the one’s with valid IDs, and gave registration forms for those who didn’t. On at least three occasions, I made small talk to avoid looking at the giant spliff twists behind their ears as supporters cheered on our efforts. And probably were just as shocked by the novelty of seeing a middle-aged white man on the turf.

As we gathered to return—all our routes finished by six with enthusiasm running high, everyone so pumped by the effort—Steve agreed with Gus and pulled up to try one block party raid. Our last stop was Glenifer Street, between N. 18th and N. 19th. Like all the other throw-downs we’d passed on our trip in, it looked about as legal as those kid’s blunts: two cars parked nose-to-nose on one end with some caution yellow tape strung bumper-to-bumper. The slight rise to the sunset was a classic curbside happening: card tables and plastic chairs, few umbrellas and, in the center, two of those inflatable bounce rooms where the tweeners piled up their shoes and sandals outside to jump up and down to the funk pouring out of speaker stands. The beauty of it all was truly shooting fish in a barrel; no need to check off the voter rolls, just wade into a table, apologize for disturbing the festivities and ask 1) if everyone was registered to vote, 2) do they all have valid photo IDs, and 3) would they like to fill out a card? We were averaging 3-to-4 per stop, people putting down their fried chicken and ribs, plastic plates of potato salad and mac’n’cheese, licking fingers clean to take a clipboard. “Hey! You want a beer?” asks the table hostess.


Couldn't be friendlier. Felt absolutley no compunction about climbing up to someone's porch where a lady giving out hair-weaves stops long enough to make sure we get three cards. Point is: we were both anonymous and accepted, getting smiles that were both acknowledgements and dismissions. Someone would toast you with their Hennessy and then go back to their conversation.

It was only towards the end of the street when this lean guy in jeans and white wife-beater, sporting a friar's fringe and three-day stubble, comes down to interrrupt my sales pitch. "Get the hell out of here! This is OUR party! We don't want none of that stuff..." etc. Goes so far as to put his arms around our shoulders, shepherding both me and the Elf up the hill. When I point out that our car is in the other direction, he releases us and says, "Fine, now get yo' asses out of here!", following us all the way down and out like a picket escort destroyer. (When everybody else gets back to the van, a few minutes later, Steve says he spoke to the actual block captain and cooled things out, saying he was just the resident malcontent.)

Back at the ranch, there's another festive fete entirely. Cardboard cut-outs of the Man with red, white and blue leis and a party hat, right beside his big cake embossed with a photo of him in shades getting onto an airplane, which just might be mistaken for a pre-goatee Malcolm X. The feed here is basically not all that different from the fare on Glenifer: foil tubs of meatballs in tomato sauce, spaghetti, red beans and rice, curried chicken and jerk chicken and chunks of fresh fruit and salad on the side. As we set to chow down, I take a moment to notice our co-workers: church ladies, retirees, vets--the people whom give the word "community" a sense of home. But, as the bus had arrived for the return trip it had to be a rather rushed chorus of the obligatory "most hated song in the world" before the Barak stand-in, and a slice of cake to-go.

How much was accomplished? The tally that was texted our team captain on the journey was significant in that our 60 people managed to get 58 new voters signed up and something like 1,118 cards filled in.

I am the walrus...koo-koo-ka-jube...